Laurent Garnier: The Cloud Making Machine

[20 February 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

Sometimes people try different things, and despite the fact that new things are sometimes scary and often weird, this is something that we should all appreciate. If no one had ever though to try something different, we’d all still be doing the same thing our parents and our grandparents did. I don’t know about you but I’m pretty content to live without the constant threats of polio and the bubonic plague.

But it’s worth remembering that for every new idea that comes along and succeeds wonderfully, there are hundreds that fail. And while pop music has a better track record than Communism or eugenics, there are still many examples of ignoble failure throughout the history of rock and roll. For every White Album or Kid A, you’ve got 10 of Kiss’ Music From “The Elder” or Suede’s Dog Man Star. Don’t even get me started on Terence Trent D’Arby’s career. Sometime when a band or artist makes a left turn into the boondocks, they come back with wonderful material like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and sometimes they end up with a Medulla.

Which is all a very elaborate way of saying that Laurent Garnier’s new LP is just not very good. It doesn’t sound like most of his recent material, and while the rejection of familiar sounds and textures alone is never a good reason to dismiss an album, the new sounds that he utilizes here are neither very new or very good.

It’s a lot easier for electronic musicians to take left turns than most rock and pop musicians (and its worth pointing out, especially in the case of artists like Radiohead and Wilco, that artistic left turns in rock usually at least partly involve rock musicians becoming electronic musicians), simply by virtue of the fact that their raw materials are already so abstract. A rock band has to work pretty hard not to sound like a rock band, even if they’re singing about gnomes and rainbows, but an electronic musician is only ever two knob-twiddles away from the realms of Autechre, Squarepusher or Stephen Reich. Start cutting and pasting notes randomly and you never know just what you’ll get.

In Laurent Garnier’s case, he’s got an album that sounds like a compilation of Orb outtakes, with a couple Boards of Canada pastiches and a spoken word track thrown in for good measure. The album’s very loose concept is something that could have easily been filched from an Orb record: a magical cloud-making machine that grants any wish the listener might make. The trippy photo collage that folds out of the booklet serves as an invitation to this particular cosmic environment—it’s fun and interesting, two things which I can’t really say for the album itself.

The two parts of the title track (which open and close the album), are a good example of where the album goes wrong. You’ve got oddly processed vocals being chopped and screwed over washed-out spacey synths and some Herbie Hancock-lite jazz noodling… but not a whole lot else. Roughly six and a half minutes of this, when all is said and done, and you’re still waiting for the beat to kick in, or for something to happen. This is the type of ambient weirdness that the Future Sound of London used to do before they got really weird and started listening to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. I had a low tolerance for it when FSOL did it (even though I quite liked Lifeforms in small doses), and the sound hasn’t aged well.

“Jeux D’enfants” is the most blatant Boards of Canada pastiche I’ve heard in quite a while, featuring recordings of laughing children contrasted with soft synthesizer lines and mellow beats. Considering the fact that Laurent Garnier is a house DJ, it’s somewhat telling that the first house beat doesn’t actually begin until track seven—“Controlling the House Part 2”—and while it may actually be a pretty good beat, having to wade through a minute or so of Garnier saying “I’m taking control of the house” before actually getting to the song is slightly tiresome.

I suppose, considering the odd nature of the album, that it probably makes perfect sense to throw a spoken word track in there somewhere. Despite the fact that it doesn’t fit very well, “First Raction (V2)” is one of the album’s stronger tracks, with Sangoma Everett delivering a powerful rap on the subject of a tragically interrupted anti-war protest. The beat is especially interesting, a frenetically harsh rhythm that reminds me of the kind used by jazz-influenced musical poets such as Carl Hancock Rux and Saul Williams.

“(I Wanne Be) Waiting For My Plane” is the ostensible climax of the album, and as such it falls flat. It features Garnier’s own deadpan vocals set against a stripped-down, angular and artificial rock beat. He’s singing about being a DJ and wanting to get on a plane for Ibiza so he can relax. Miss Kittin covered the same material on the far superior “Professional Distortion”, off last year’s I.Com, but Garnier is no Miss Kittin, and his weak vocals just don’t succeed in investing the listener in his ennui. He sounds bored. The track manages to conjure up a very faint whiff of something resembling Death in Vegas or Suicide, but only just barely.

I can’t really hate this album, because even if it’s not very good, it’s still something of a noble failure. I’d rather see an artist try and fail to do something different than not to try at all: that way leads the Black Crowes. There are a couple tracks worth hearing, but on the whole this is a conceptual misfire. I hope that next time out Garnier remembers to include more of the delicious deep French house he built his reputation on. While I admire his willingness to leave his comfort zone in the name of exploring new and different ideas, there’s nothing here that is either very new or very different from what we’ve heard before.

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